These timeless prom portraits are an ode to teenage resilience
When the senior dance was cancelled, Katie McCurdy set up a socially-distanced studio in her backyard to keep the tradition of prom photos alive.
Growing up in a small town gave Katie McCurdy big dreams. As a teenager, she felt suffocated by the sameness of suburban Schwenksville, Pennsylvania, and wanted to move to a city like New York or Los Angeles — a city where things happened — to become a photographer. By her senior year at Perkiomen Valley High School, she was editor-in-chief of the newspaper, taught photo club and even took art classes on the weekends, all in the name of getting accepted to college and making her dreams a reality.
Over 14 years later, Katie, 32, is a working photographer with an impressive list of clients from Elle Fanning to Dev Hynes, and she shoots for Nike and Marc Jacobs. Her newest portrait series, however, keeps things close to home. In order to keep the tradition of prom photos alive, Katie photographed high schoolers from her alma mater whose senior dance was sadly cancelled due to COVID-19. She set up a socially-distanced studio in the backyard of her childhood home, threw on some music and let the kids have their moment.
Before the pandemic, Katie was bicoastal. She was busy, content to live life on the move, and yet her photos maintained the sort of soft, natural intimacy that can best be evoked by someone who is used to ruminating in stillness. No matter where she went, or what she shot, her quiet hometown days never really left her. When Katie’s father passed away earlier this year, she and her sister Samantha returned to their childhood home to spend time with their mother. Because of the pandemic, they ended up quarantining there for most of the spring and summer, which forced Katie, who was already taking a break from work, to confront the characteristics of life in a small town in ways she hadn’t done in years.
“I feel like you don’t really see your surroundings until you leave and come back,” she says over the phone. “It felt like that for me at least. Being home made me want to start taking notice of simple moments again. I’m used to shooting so much, so often, for brands, so when I finally had the chance to not constantly be working for other people — to shoot my own images for myself — I remembered why I loved photography and why I wanted to do it in the first place.”
Those memories took her back to Perkiomen Valley High School, where she signed up to teach a photography workshop for juniors and seniors interested in pursuing the arts post-grad. It was there that she connected with Owen Ley, a senior at the time and member of the prom committee, about setting up a photography studio at prom. When the dance was cancelled, Katie and Owen remained in touch. “We were having a candid conversation and I was like, ‘It would still be really cool to do these portraits,’” Katie recalls.
Owen, now a freshman at Parsons School of Design, organized a group of students to come to Katie’s backyard the first week of August, where she and Samantha, an artist, created a small studio in the backyard. The teens arrived in small groups and self-styled, most of them in suits and dresses they bought for the dance in the spring, but that they didn’t get the chance to wear.
During the shoot, there was a fun-loving energy in the air, amplified by party music and nerves and the ephemeral bliss of a makeshift prom night. Though the teens had mixed feelings about missing their real prom, a high school rite of passage, for once they didn’t have to focus on what the pandemic was taking away from them. Instead, they simply donned their fanciest outfits, posed for the camera with their friends and enjoyed the beauty and brevity of the moment.
“I think, when you work so much in your field, you kind of forget that what you’re doing is special until someone else is in front of the camera, and they’re just genuinely excited to be photographed,” Katie says. “These kids were so excited, and for me, it was this moment of, wow, this is the feeling I care about. I want to be shooting this more.”
“We are the generation that has started movements and stood up for what we believe in, no matter the cost. We're very connected through the internet, so we're aware and educated about what's happening in the world. Our generation gives me hope for the future.”
“It’s okay to be alone. Before the pandemic, I would feel left out or lonely when I wasn't always making plans or hanging out with friends. But my quarantine experience showed me I can find comfort in myself, and that spending time alone isn't necessarily a bad thing.”
”Everybody looks forward to graduation. I feel like I missed out on that relieving part, where I’m supposed to finally realize I’m onto the next step of life. Instead, I got an emotionless slideshow graduation, and now I feel like I'm in limbo. I never really got that closure.”
“I feel like the carpet got ripped out from under all of us. We didn’t have much of a choice but to get creative with the milestones like prom and graduation, which is bittersweet, because while they’re still really nice memories, they didn’t really pan out to what I spent years looking forward to.”
“The pandemic taught me how much I took my life for granted. I went from working and constantly hanging out with my friends to being unemployed and confined to my house. I learned that you don’t need all of that to have fun — just being able to see the people you love and having a conversation with them is enough.”
“I’ve always considered myself to be a people-person, so during the pandemic I had to figure out ways to pass time by myself. I took up new hobbies and rediscovered old ones, and overall, it’s been a really transformative time in my life.”
“In talking to my friends and family, most of them feel like a completely different person than they were in January. I would definitely agree. Coping with the various ways the pandemic turned my life upside down showed me that I am capable of being resilient and strong through uncertainty. As one of my favorite authors, Glennon Doyle says, ‘I can do hard things.’”
“I’m sad about missing my senior prom. I wanted to have that cliché high school slow dance moment with my boyfriend.”
“The pandemic taught me the need to slow down and appreciate the little things more. I tend to be overly-stressed and busy most of the time, so once COVID-19 hit I went from having everything to just about nothing to do. I realized I needed to take more time for myself, and spend more time with my family and close friends. I am especially grateful I did this in the time leading up to me moving into college.”
“Not much gives me hope at the moment — besides my friends. They’ve been the only stagnant thing in my life, and they are what keeps me going.”
Photography Katie McCurdy
Set Design Samantha McCurdy.